Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

The Reverend Stephen Kumalo

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The Reverend Stephen Kumalo (kew-MAH-loh), a Zulu who is an educated man and an Anglican priest. He lives in the country and is unused to the ways of the city and its people. Even so, he goes to Johannesburg to help his sister and find his son. He does his best, which is not enough, to help his relatives. When his son is executed, he cries out for help—for his land and his people as well as for his son.

Gertrude

Gertrude, the clergyman’s sister. She has become a prostitute and dealer in illegal liquor in Johannesburg.

John

John, the clergyman’s brother in Johannesburg, a practical man and a successful merchant. As a native politician, he is disturbed by the police and kept under their surveillance. He is a selfish man; he has also abandoned the Christian faith.

Absalom

Absalom, the clergyman’s son. He is a country boy ruined by white ways in the city. He drinks, commits adultery, and steals, at last killing a man who is an activist for the natives, trying to help them improve their condition. Found guilty of the crime, Absalom is sentenced to hang. His one act of goodness is to marry the woman who carries his unborn child.

Arthur Jarvis

Arthur Jarvis, Absalom’s victim, a young white man who works hard to help the natives improve their lot in Africa. There is irony in his death at the hands of one of the natives he wants to spend his life helping.

Msimangu

Msimangu (ihm-see-MAHN-gew), a native Anglican clergyman in Johannesburg. He is a good man who tries to help Stephen Kumalo find his people and understand them.

Mr. Jarvis

Mr. Jarvis, Arthur Jarvis’ father. He carries on his son’s work for the natives by bringing milk for their children, farm machinery, an agricultural demonstrator, good seed, and a dam to provide water for irrigation. He even becomes Kumalo’s friend after they have both lost their sons, one a murderer and the other his victim.

Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096

The underlying theme of Cry, the Beloved Country, as in all of Paton's works, involves the unifying power of love and the divisive force of fear. Paton feels that only love—for one another and for the land itself—can bind together the country's diverse ethnic groups and allow them to overcome their fear and mistrust of one another.

Such fear and mistrust is rampant in the cities of South Africa, and Paton's central theme addresses the attractions, temptations, and dangers of urban society. As tribal societies continue to break down, the apparent wealth and excitement of cities such as Johannesburg lure many impoverished natives away from their tribal homes. The exodus creates a society of overlords and slum dwellers whose lives are constantly overwhelmed by crime and violence. Feeling threatened by the influx of blacks into their community, the white Afrikaners resist integration and fear engulfment. Urban blacks are faced with internal strife as they struggle to maintain their customs outside of their decaying tribes, and external conflict as they lash out against social and economic oppression in the city. The novel teems with ethnically diverse characters. The most positive characters in the novel work towards racial harmony in an effort to eliminate the repressive apartheid laws and remove the artificial barrier that inhibits human relationships in South Africa. Many minor characters, such as Jan Hofmeyr and Father Beresford, are based on real figures in South African life, all liberal fighters for social justice, equality, and freedom. Father Beresford recalls Father Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Reeves, both deported bishops of Johannesburg, while Jan Hofmeyr was a liberal politician whom Paton greatly admired. Other minor but memorable characters include Mr. Carmichael, Absalom's defense lawyer, and Napoleon Letsitsi, the agricultural demonstrator, "an angel from God" in Stephen Kumalo's eyes, whom James Jarvis hires to restore the valley of Ndotsheni.

Stephen Kumalo, the protagonist, is a pious, humble, and dedicated country priest. He remains unaware of the impact of tribal disintegration until he comes face to face with the dangers and attractions of Johannesburg. He suffers tremendously in the quest for his son and even begins to doubt his religious beliefs. Eventually Kumalo manages to restore his faith and, with the help of James Jarvis, the valley. This restoration suggests hope for the renewal of the tribe. The birth of Absalom's son reiterates this hope and signals the beginning of a new breed of black South Africans who will actively seek the reform of a repressive society.

James Jarvis lives in High Place, far removed from the tribulations of the valley, as the name of his homestead indicates. A white man, he speaks Zulu but has no direct connection with the blacks until he, like Stephen, loses a son in Johannesburg. After learning more about the political philosophy of his son, Arthur, he becomes a philanthropist, building a new church and bringing in an agricultural expert to help restore the valley. He also sympathizes with Stephen Kumalo. These two older characters are connected through suffering and loss; Kumalo's son has murdered Jarvis's son and is in turn killed by the state. Because Kumalo and Jarvis are capable of forgiveness, this common denominator drives them to better the lot of the people and to bring peace to the valley.

Arthur Jarvis, a professional engineer, is a scholar and a revolutionary. Arthur first alienates his father when he refuses his agricultural inheritance, instead choosing to pursue an independent professional interest in Johannesburg. Arthur devotes time to the poor by becoming president of the city's African Boys' Club. He avidly reads about South African racial problems and advocates educating the blacks and ending the whites' economic exploitation of the blacks, pointing to Christ and Abraham Lincoln as his mentors. Because both these role models were assassinated for preaching the truth, Arthur may also be seen as a Christ-figure and a political martyr. Paton enhances Arthur's spiritual image by having Arthur appear only through the letters, diaries, and manuscripts left behind at his desk. His influence changes his father for the better, and his funeral brings down the barriers of segregation. Arthur Jarvis represents the voice of unity, compassion, and straightforward yearning for a just and equitable society.

Absalom Kumalo, brought up in a stable home by a strict, religious family, rebels against parental and societal authority, bringing hardship to his parents. Like that of his biblical counterpart, King David's son Absalom, Absalom Kumalo's rebellion against his father leads to his death. Just as David laments, "O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Sam. 18:35-36), Stephen Kumalo suffers and laments for his only child. An essentially good person, Absalom vows to always tell the truth no matter what the consequences; but his natural rebelliousness, intensified by an oppressive political system and the pressures of the city, leads to his troubled end.

The clerics, Father Vincent and the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, both priests in Johannesburg, are helpful and understanding. The benevolent Msimangu openly confesses his weaknesses as a priest but takes his evangelical duties seriously. Father Vincent is a humble, dedicated priest who arranges for Mr. Carmichael to defend Absalom and performs the marriage ceremony of the imprisoned Absalom and his pregnant wife. Father Vincent tries in vain to gain a pardon for Absalom and is present at the execution.
Stephen's brother John, John's son Matthew, and their friend Johannes Pafuri are rogues. The corrupt John Kumalo enjoys talking politics and inciting a crowd to riot, but he never places himself in danger of arrest. He advocates strikes and the formation of trade unions, but he is motivated by the prospect of financial gain. In contrast, his colleagues Dubula and Tomlinson are sincere and devoted to the workers. Matthew Kumalo and Pafuri actually plan and execute the burglary that leads to Arthur Jarvis's death. Persuaded by his cousin and friend to participate in the crime, Absalom alone is punished after Matthew and Pafuri betray him.

Presented without any appreciable depth, the women characters are essentially seen as helpmates. Mrs. Lithebe is a religious and devoted Christian woman who accommodates Stephen Kumalo in Sophiatown. Margaret Jarvis, James's wife, rarely appears except when grieving for her son's death and during her own death scene. Gertrude Kumalo, Stephen's sister, remains a prostitute in Johannesburg despite his efforts to rehabilitate her. Stephen Kumalo's wife is a loyal, hardworking companion, who constantly supports her husband. Absalom's wife builds a new life for herself, and her child becomes a symbol of a new generation.

Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375

The novel teems with a multitude of characters of all ethnic backgrounds, creeds and colors. A sensitive reader of Cry, the Beloved Country cannot easily dismiss the magnificent minor characters such as Jan Hofmeyr and Father Beresford, because these characters are modeled on real figures in South African life, all liberal fighters for justice, equality and freedom in the society. Father Beresford is really a reincarnation of Father Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Reeves, both deported Bishops of Johannesburg, while Jan Hofmeyr was a liberal politician whom Paton greatly admired. Nor can the reader easily forget the brilliance and help of Mr. Carmichael, Absalom's defense lawyer, or Napoleon Letsitsi, the agricultural demonstrator, "an angel from God" in Stephen Kumalo's eyes, whom James Jarvis hires to restore the valley, or Mr. Mafalo. or the adorable and promising nine-year-old son of Arthur Jarvis.

But the most memorable in the novel are obviously the major characters. The protagonist, Stephen Kumalo, the country priest, lives in the valley of Ndotsheni. He is pious, humble, a kind, good husband, who is dedicated to his parish. Stephen Kumalo is unaware of the impact of the tribal disintegration until he undergoes a series of experiences in the city of Johannesburg, where he comes face to face with the evils and attractions of the city. He suffers tremendously in the quest for his son, his brother and sisters, all of whom have fallen on evil days, like Luke, in Wordsworth's "Michael". Kumalo even begins to doubt his religious beliefs but eventually manages to restore his faith, his family, and with the help of James Jarvis, to restore the valley. Hopefully, the restoration of the valley will lead to the restoration of the tribe. The birth of Absalom's son, as well as Gertrude's child, will be the beacon heralding the commencement of a new breed of black South Africans filled with hope for the end of a repressive society.

James Jarvis lives in High Place, far removed from the tribulations of the valley, as the name of his homestead indicates. He is happily married, speaks Zulu, but has no direct connection with the blacks until he, too, loses a son in Johannesburg. He must also undergo a series of suffering, on the road to eventual awareness of the need to help the blacks. The strained relationship between James Jarvis and Arthur Jarvis, his son, ends when James Jarvis has the opportunity to learn more about his son's political philosophy. He becomes a philanthropist, building a new church, bringing in an agricultural expert to help restore the valley and sympathizing with the old priest, Stephen Kumalo. The only barrier to their full mutual communion is the unnatural political system. Thus, the themes of suffering, of fear, and the question of love have become a connecting rod between the two older characters, Stephen Kumalo losing his son through State punishment and James Jarvis losing his son through a violent crime as Absalom Kumalo murders Arthur Jarvis. This common denominator drives them to better the lot of the people and to restore the valley where the titihoya no longer sings.

Arthur Jarvis is a revolutionary character, scholarly, a professional engineer. He had refused his agricultural inheritance in order to pursue an independent professional interest, and his ideas on the native problem are positive and unhypocritical. This began the rupture between Arthur Jarvis and his father. In Johannesburg, Arthur Jarvis had practiced his philosophy by devoting time to help the poor natives, by becoming President of the African Boys' Club, by avidly reading about South African racial problems, by propounding theories on how to solve these important problems. Arthur Jarvis had also advocated the end of economic exploitation, the education of the Africans and pointed to Christ and Abraham Lincoln as his mentors. Because both these role models suffered assassination and both preached the truth, Arthur Jarvis may be seen as a Christ-figure. His pervading presence in the novel is spiritual and immediate.

It is really through Arthur Jarvis' influence that his father changes for the better. His funeral brings down the barriers of segregation in that society. All in all, the character of Arthur Jarvis represents the voice of unity, of compassion, of straightforward yearning for a just and equitable society.

Absalom Kumalo, having been brought up in a good home by a Godfearing family, rebels against authority and falls into temptation. As already noted, Absalom brings untold hardship to his parents and loses his life, just like his Biblical counterpart, the son of King David. Just as David laments, "O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, o Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Sam. 18:35-36), Stephen Kumalo suffers and laments for his only child. An admirable quality of Absalom emerges in this tragedy: his vow to always tell the truth no matter what the consequences. His essential goodness and humanity ultimately shine through. Through his unborn child, the opportunity for a new generation of Africans emerges. Bad companions and negative influence, combined with the evils of the city, all lead to Absalom's troubles. Given the opportunity offered Absalom at the Reform School, this tragedy should have been averted.

The clerics, Father Vincent and Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, both urban Anglican priests in Johannesburg, are helpful and understanding. Rev. Msimangu, in spite of openly confessing his weaknesses as a priest, is a very benevolent character who takes his evangelical duties seriously. Father Vincent is a humble, dedicated priest who also helps Stephen Kumalo in time of need, arranging for Mr. Carmichael to defend Absalom, performing the marriage ceremony of Absalom and his pregnant wife. Father Vincent tries in vain to gain the Governor General-in-Council's pardon for Absalom and is present at the execution.

John Kumalo, his son Matthew and their friend Johannes Pafuri are rogues. The corrupt John Kumalo likes talking politics and inciting a crowd to riot, although he will never place himself in danger of arrest. He loves money and the making of money. This political demagogue preaches cause for the formation of trade unions, advocates strikes but ensures his own safety. In contrast, his colleagues, Dubula and Tomlinson are much more sincere and are devoted to the workers. Matthew Kumalo and Pafuri actually plan and execute the burglary and persuade Absalom to join them. Thus Absalom has to suffer — alone — for keeping bad company, while the real guilty parties remain free. Matthew and Pafuri represent cold, total betrayal.

The women characters are presented without depth or appreciable importance. They are essentially seen as helpmates. Mrs. Lithebe is a religious and devoted Christian woman, who accommodates the Reverend Stephen Kumalo in Sophiatown. Mrs. Margaret Jarvis is almost nonexistent except when seen grieving for her son's death and her own death scene. Gertrude Kumalo remains a prostitute, despite her brother's efforts to rehabilitate her. She escapes to her past life of the shebeens and illegitimate children. Absalom's wife turns over a new leaf and her child is to become a symbol of the new generation. Stephen Kumalo's wife is a loyal, hardworking, long-suffering companion, humble and poor, but very supportive of her husband and their cause.

Cutting across racial and ethnic lines as in real life, there are good and evil characters in the novel. Father Vincent, James Jarvis, Arthur Jarvis, Mr. Carmichael, Father Beresford, the Reform School Director (who seems to represent Paton himself), and even the parole officer and judge are all white people with good intentions. John Harrison is a young, open-minded white liberal character, because of his association with Arthur Jarvis. The elder Harrison is a conservative character, full of bigotry and hatred. All the other characters, according to Paton's message, are in the novel to work towards racial harmony, to eliminate the repressive apartheid laws, and to remove the artificial barrier that is inhibiting human relationships in South Africa. All cry for human intercourse: "Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart."

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